The trial of John Demjanjuk has started in Munich. He is accused of being an accessory to the murder of thousands of Jews at a Nazi death camp. However, his trial is causing controversy in Ukraine, his home country.
Demjanjuk, 89, was deported from the United States earlier this year. He denies any involvement in the Holocaust and his family insists he is too frail to stand trial.
The prosecution evidence claims that the suspect, who can barely walk now, was a guard at a Nazi death camp in Sobibor in Poland.
Nazi death camp survivors see the old man as a villain, but in the country where he was born he is viewed as a victim by some.
Politicians in Lvov City Council in western Ukraine have voiced their support for Demjanjuk against what they describe is a conspiracy.
“Ukrainians must stand up to protect a Ukrainian, who for three decades has been accused of crimes he never committed,” said Rostislav Novozhenets, Ukrainian parliament (Rada) deputy from Lviv region.
“We asked the president and the Foreign Ministry to provide legal help and stop the prosecution of Demjanjuk. We believe the case is fabricated and is a conspiracy of Zionists against Ukraine, as well as an evil agreement between Russia and Germany,” he noted.
However, observers in Ukraine, a country that suffered under brutal Nazi occupation, say the stance of the nationalist politicians is hardly a surprise.
“He is Ukrainian and that is the only thing which matters to them,” believes political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinskiy.
“It does not matter whether he committed crimes against humanity or not. They believe the case to be a great conspiracy against Ukraine by Jews and the KGB. It reflects the polarization in public opinion in Ukrainian society,” he added.
Demjanjuk, who had emigrated to the US, was deported for trial to Israel where a court sentenced him to death 21 years ago.
A survivor declared that John Demjanjuk was the infamous “Ivan the Terrible” – one of the camp’s most brutal guards, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. Controversially, he was acquitted on appeal over uncertainty about the evidence.
Death camp survivors were horrified. They view Demjanjuk as one of the most notorious surviving Nazi criminals, being the second on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s most-wanted list.
“A guard in the concentration camp or a jail, his duty was to watch nobody should escape,” said Thomas Blatt, Sobibor survivor and witness in the Demjanjuk trial.
“A guard in a death camp – he helped to destroy people. A guard in a death camp chased people with the tip of his bayonet into the gas chambers.”
The German prosecution claims Demjanjuk could have as many as 28,000 deaths on his hands. After he was stripped of US citizenship and extradited to Germany six months ago, prosecutors there said they have more evidence and launched a retrial. Nonetheless, Demjanjuk’s defense insists he is innocent.
“The defense believes that the evidence is not able to prove without doubt that the accused is guilty as charged in the indictment,” said Guenther Maul, Demjanjuk’s lawyer.
It is this very point which has motivated deputies from Lvov to appeal to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
RT spoke to Yoram Sheftel, the lawyer who defended him in Israel, and he explained what made him believe Demjanjuk was not a Nazi criminal.